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Friday Rewind: NLDS Previews, Dick Butkus and More
We’ve got a couple of amazing special guests helping out today as we look to preview the National League Division Series, we’ve also got some thoughts on Dick Butkus, we’ve got some book stuff, it’s a chock-full Friday Rewind.
Molly Knight on Dodgers-Diamondbacks!
It is SO fun to get Molly Knight going on baseball. She has so many thoughts about the game, and when they start tumbling out of her, well, there can’t be even a handful of people in the world who are more fun to watch a game with. Her newsletter, The Long Game, is basically like going to a game with her. You’ll want to sign up.
People think they know what the Dodgers are at this point: a rich team that drafts well and has basically run the table to win a somewhat weak division during 10 of the past 11 seasons. And then they fold in the playoffs.
But here’s where this team is different: They have no ace. Nobody in the Cy Young race. Not even kind of an ace. Gone are the days of peak Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Julío Urías, Max Scherzer, Yu Darvish and Walker Buehler. Instead, the team's rotation is anchored by a bunch of rookies, many promoted to the big club straight from Double-A.
Here is what the 2023 Dodgers’ starting rotation should have looked like this season:
Walker Buehler (out for the year, Tommy John)
Dustin May (out for the year, shoulder surgery)
Tony Gonsolin (out for the year, Tommy John)
Julio Urías (out for the year, under investigation for alleged domestic violence incident)
Clayton Kershaw (missed two months. Shoulder not right. Throwing 88)
They signed Noah Syndergaard and that... did not work. They traded for Lance Lynn, who can give you seven innings while also surrendering five runs.
Other than that, it’s rookies galore. Bobby Miller, who will one day be an ace, should be their Game 1 starter. He’s 24 years old, has never pitched in the postseason, and has thrown 124.1 career innings.
I’m guessing Kershaw will take the ball in Game 2 and try to gut through by using his big baseball brain and his slider/changeup combo.
Then for Game 3, we’re looking at some kind of Frankenstein situation with Lynn, and rookies Ryan Pepiot and/or Emmet Sheehan (??).*
*It should be noted here that while the Dodgers starting rotation is the worst of the remaining teams (besides maybe the Rangers), their bullpen might just be the best, and that strangely started when the team picked up Boston cast-off Ryan Brasier** mid-season, because the pen was garbage for months. For the first time in the Dodgers’ last decade of playoff appearances, they’re going to feature a bunch of Rays-like bullpen games and openers and bulk guys and piggy-backers. But unlike the Rays, this Dodgers' team can actually hit.
**JOE NOTE: If you want to have fun, walk up to Michael Schur — you’ll probably just see him walking around — and ask him: “Hey Mike, what was Ryan Brasier’s ERA with the Red Sox?” You won’t be disappointed with his reaction!
The Dodgers rotation was a mess all year and yet they still won 100 games. Why? A couple of reasons. First: Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman both played out of their minds. They should finish second and third behind Ronald Acuña Jr. in the NL MVP race. But more than that, when Gavin Lux tore his ACL pre-season and the Dodgers found themselves without a second baseman, Betts casually moved from rightfield to second, where he also played Gold Glove-caliber defense. This not only saved their butts since they were so thin on middle infield help at the minor league level, but it also allowed them to sub in an excellent defender in right (when a righty was on the mound) in Jason Heyward. Perhaps one of the most shocking developments in baseball this year is that Freddie Freeman fixed his best friend’s swing, and Heyward now has an OPS of .813 over the season.
The key for the Diamondbacks to win this series is the same key for every team who wanted to beat the Dodgers this season: neutralize Betts and Freeman.
The rest of the offense is dangerous. Will Smith played with a cracked rib all year and is finally healthy. Max Muncy is always good for a playoff dinger or two, and JD Martinez is finally healthy and playing out of his mind. Still, the key remains the same: Pitch around Betts and Freeman to get to these guys, or else you deserve to go home.
On the other side, we have the Diamondbacks, who kinda shocked the sports world by sweeping the Brewers in the wild-card series. I say "kinda shocked," because as soon as Craig Counsell announced Brandon Woodruff would miss the series with an injury, I thought, “Well, the Diamondbacks’ chances of advancing to the NLDS sure escalated quickly!”
After failing to knock the Houston Astros out of the playoffs by only scoring three runs in three games during the final weekend of the regular season, the D-Backs’ inconsistent offense exploded for 11 runs in two games against a terrific Brewers pitching staff, because no one knows anything.
Given that the 111-win Dodgers choked and lost to the Padres in the Division Series last season, I don’t think any of their players or fans are taking this series lightly. And I know for a fact that there’s no team the D-Backs would rather knock out than their (one-sided) division rival Dodgers.
But here’s a big problem for AZ. Merrill Kelly is an amazing pitcher, one of the best in the game. But for some reason, he has thrown batting practice to the Dodgers over his entire career. Reader: He has made 16 starts against L.A. in his life. He has gone 0-11 with a 5.49 ERA. In 83.2 innings he has allowed 105 hits and 40 walks with 69 strikeouts. This is not a small sample size.
The Dodgers own the deed to his house, for some reason, and he is starting Game 1 of this series. I would not start Kelly in Game 1, but the D-Backs’ other options are Zac Gallen on, like, two days’ rest, or ???? (maybe me). So it’s Kelly!
The D-Backs can kind of afford to lose Game 1 on Saturday with Gallen lined up to start Game 2 on regular rest on Monday, but, boy, it could get ugly if the Dodgers pound Kelly, and he has to pitch again later in the series with the D-Backs’ season on the line. That's a terrifying thought if I’m a Snakes fan. Just a matchup from hell, and no one seems to know why.
Here are some positives for the D-Backs: After kinda slumping down the stretch, NL Rookie of the Year lock, Corbin Carroll, played out of his mind in the wild-card series, with a .571 BA/.667 OBP/1.143 SLG. These are small sample sizes, yes, but the playoffs are an exercise in small sample sizes. Guys don’t have the luxury of waiting around for the hits to start falling. They need to start raking out of the gate.
I also do think that teams with long layoffs like the Dodgers, Braves, Astros and Orioles have somewhat of a disadvantage sitting around for a week trying to stay sharp while the teams that come in to play them are fresh off huge moral (and literal) victories. The Diamondbacks just took out the Brewers when pundits picked against them. They are certainly motivated to wreck the Dodgers’ season. While L.A. is definitely favored (and they have the easier matchup than the Braves do against the Phillies) it’s foolish to pencil the Dodgers into the NLCS just yet.
Happy Friday! The Rewind is free so everyone can enjoy it. Just a reminder that Joe Blogs is a reader-supported newsletter, and I’d love and appreciate your support.
Ellen Adair on Phillies-Braves!
Everybody by now should know all about Ellen Adair’s cosmic love for the Philadelphia Phillies. I’m not sure how many people know that her loathing of the Atlanta Braves might be equal. Like, if you put her Phillies love on one side of the balancing scale and her Braves hate on the other, it might just even out. Well, maybe the Phillies love would be a LITTLE bit heavier. We always root for love, right? As you will see below, Ellen should probably start her own baseball newsletter.
Joe kindly invited me to write “a little” for a preview of the NLDS series of Philadelphia versus Atlanta, and though I am still in the process of writing the second clause of the first sentence, I am guessing that it will not be “a little,” if less than Mike Schur wrote about the 2004 Red Sox in Joe’s Why We Love Baseball. (You might not have heard, but Joe wrote a book, and it’s been on The NY Times bestseller list for four whole weeks! But Joe is shy, so his friends need to hype him.)
In his invitation, Joe also wrote that I “love the Phillies more than life itself, and hate the Braves with the heat of a thousand suns.” Unlike the “little,” this statement is not up for dispute. So may I present to you, Ellen Adair’s Totally Unbiased and Completely Objective Preview of the Philly/Atlanta National League Division Series.
Both teams have demons to exorcise. This is my unbiased analysis. For Atlanta, the Phillies barreled past them, three games to one, in last year’s NLDS. Everyone knew that Atlanta was the better team in 2022, as they are in 2023. But last year, the majority of their starters were working their way back from injury or illness, and only Kyle Wright contained the Phillies. Outside of Acuña, Olson, Arcia and d’Arnaud, their offense was quiet.
On the Phillies’ side, Nola was brilliant. Wheeler shoved. JT Realmuto legged out an inside-the-park home run. And in the first playoff game that Citizens Bank Park had seen since 2011, Bryson Stott ended a nine-pitch at-bat versus Spencer Strider by scoring Brandon Marsh for the first run of the game. Schwarber was intentionally walked to face Hoskins—and every JoeBlogs reader knows what retribution an intentional walk deserves. Rhys Hoskins hit a majestic rainbow of a home run, spiking his bat on the ground, for the highest moment of pure elation that I have ever experienced in my life. I narrate this moment, obviously, with complete objectivity.
Meanwhile, for the Phillies, they have watched Atlanta clinch the division again and again—literally. Emotionally, it feels like Atlanta has clinched the division on the backs of a Phillies loss for 12 consecutive years, doing a collective group hop of celebration on the infield grass directly in/on the faces of the poor boys whom I love like my own family. Objectively, I know that only half of Atlanta’s six straight division titles have been sewn up in a victory over the Phillies. But I still wouldn’t say that last year’s NLDS undid the damage of the past six Septembers. In terms of baseball demons, September can be as spooky a month as October.
During regular-season play this year, Atlanta bested Philadelphia 8-5. Well, yeah. Atlanta has the Best Team in Baseball. Poll most baseball fans, and they’ll agree. Ronald Acuña Jr. seemed to run away with the MVP award from early in the season, even if Mookie Betts’ superstar-plus-defensive-versatility is making the conversation worth having.
Beyond that, Matt Olson has put up an MVP-caliber season of his own, with a 162 OPS+ to Acuna’s 168. Heck, almost the entire starting nine has an OPS+ of well above 100, excepting a just-below-average Orlando Arcia, who cooled after a blazing start, and Eddie Rosario at a Steady Eddie 100. But Ozzie Albies, Austin Riley, Marcell Ozuna, Michael Harris II, Sean Murphy and Travis d’Arnaud—they can all bash your face in, objectively speaking. Though they dealt with many injuries to the rotation, Spencer Strider pitches like a Marvel character, Bryce Elder and Charlie Morton had excellent seasons, on the whole, and Max Fried regained form on his return, with especially good starts versus the Giants and Dodgers.
But, as an unbiased observer, the Phillies do have cause for hope. And not just the hope granted by St. Patsy, the patron saint of Baseball Randomness, who assures that the Best Team in Baseball frequently stumbles somewhere on the way to the championship, no matter who they are.
One reason is that, although I mentioned the 8-5 record above, the Phillies played sharp baseball versus the division winners late in September. They took two of three at Truist Park, and although Atlanta took three of four in Philadelphia, TWO of those victories were extra-inning games. (The other loss was versus Spencer Strider, which just, yeah. Good luck.) My point is the Phillies played tough. They looked like they could hang with Atlanta. They looked better than the record would indicate.
The same could be said of their season. Although the Phillies’ 90 wins would have put them in contention to win three other divisions, the start of their season put them in the hole, both in terms of the divisional race, and yearlong team stats. (This is very familiar to Phillies fans.) Philadelphia was the last team in MLB to win a game at the start of the season. But around the start of June, they began turning things around, and in August, they became red-hot, breaking the franchise record for most home runs in a month, with 59. Since Aug. 1, the Phillies have tied Atlanta for most home runs, with both clubs slugging 107.
The Phillies, too, can bash your face in. Objectively. Six players have more than 20 home runs: Kyle Schwarber, Nick Castellanos, Trea Turner, Bryce Harper, JT Realmuto and Alec Bohm, and three more have double-digit homers, with Brandon Marsh, Bryson Stott and Edmundo Sosa. Bryce Harper had a slower start, power-wise, in his speedy return from Tommy John surgery—a record-setting 160 recovery days—but now looks dialed in.
And in pitching, the Phillies were actually a better team this year than Atlanta, who, like many teams in baseball, battled numerous injuries to their rotation. The Phillies had the highest pitching WAR (FanGraphs) in MLB, with 24.2, versus Atlanta’s 16.6. The Phillies also had a better ERA, 4.02 to 4.14. Breaking this down into component parts of starting pitching and relief pitching tells the same story: Both the starting staff and the bullpen were better for Philadelphia. This also holds true since the start of August, when the Phillies began to click.
After several years in which I would only listen to, but not watch, the Phillies bullpen, while angrily cleaning the kitchen, the bullpen is now a strength. Astonishingly. But Dave Dombrowski is very good at many things, and one of them is seeing a hole and then filling it, sometimes relentlessly. One result is that where once the Phillies had no centerfielders, now they have three. (Johan Rojas, who came straight up from AA, had 15 Defensive Runs Saved in only 59 games! I can’t believe how much I love him!) Another result is that the bullpen now has a lot of guys who throw gas even if they have a career double-digit walk rate.
Look for Rob Thomson to mix and match Jose Alvarado, Craig Kimbrel, Gregory Soto and Jeff Hoffman in high-leverage spots. Rookie Orion Kerkering now has four total major league appearances, having started in A ball this spring, but throws a phenomenal slider (misclassified as a sweeper by the broadcast, imho) and a 99-mph fastball.
Because this NLDS schedule actually has an extra rest day, with games on Saturday and Monday, both teams will likely only be using three different starters, or combinations of starters. (Please ask my friend Nick Pollack of Pitcher List about his dream scenario of no off days in the middle of a series in the postseason. I don’t think it could work, but it has an appeal.)
The advantage in the Game 1 matchup is clearly for Atlanta, since every time the Phillies face Spencer Strider they look like they’re swinging toothpicks at the plate. Given Strider’s recent interview professing a wish for there to be no fans in the stands, at least he won’t have to deal with the volubility of the Philadelphia crowd for this one. The Phillies will likely start Ranger Suarez, who has dealt with an up-and-down year. A forearm injury delayed his season, and a hamstring issue took him out in August. After three good starts, his final two weren’t great; the curveball and cutter that transformed his arsenal in 2022 were down in usage. That said, Suarez is as cool as a tiny helmet of ice cream, and he did pitch the Phillies to one of their two World Series victories. If Suarez struggles, we might see Cristopher Sanchez come in, the young lefty who exceeded expectations to lock down a rotation spot. Sanchez’s changeup can dazzle, and his 3.44 ERA in 18 starts is actually the best mark of the Phillies’ starting staff.
Game 2 will probably feature Zack Wheeler and Max Fried. Though unlikely to win the Cy Young, Wheeler is at least in the conversation in a crowded field, and he looked the part in the Wild-Card series. Wheeler was pitching on air, throwing 99 mph, and shut the Marlins down for almost seven innings. Fried, meanwhile, was dealing with a blister issue late in the season. He has been pitching simulated games with a protective band-aid, and I expect him to be as sharp as he was the last time he faced the Phillies in September. My heart says Wheeler, but objectively, this might be the most balanced of the pitching matchups.
The Game 3 Atlanta starter is beyond my prognostication, because Charlie Morton won’t be available until the NLCS. Bryce Elder obviously put up an excellent 3.81 ERA this season, but underlying metrics from his strikeout rate to xERA/FIP suggest that luck helped him. The Phillies touched him up the last time the two teams faced off, and he didn’t finish the season strong. Atlanta has other options who have started, like AJ Smith-Shawver and Allan Winans, but I don’t know that I would pick them over Elder, and I am a goofball.
On the other side, we have a pitcher that I am completely unbiased and objective about, named Aaron Nola. Nola has had a mystifying season, even for a fully hypothetical person who watches every single one of his pitches like a very loving hawk. Nola said that he made a mechanical adjustment after his last start in St. Louis, and since then, had excellent starts versus Atlanta and Pittsburgh. His seven shutout innings versus the Marlins weren’t without their own mystery: he had only three strikeouts despite Doug Eddings kindly calling a lot of outside changeups for strikes, and Nola getting an excellent 30% CSW overall (called strikes + whiffs). Nevertheless, there is reason for hope, among those affectionate hypothetical hawks, that Nola might have turned a corner. If he has, Philadelphia may have the pitching advantage in this game, and it could be a huge deciding factor for their postseason.
I would also be remiss if I did not, objectively, say a few words about the importance of vibes to this Phillies team. This is not to denigrate Atlanta’s vibes, because whenever I watch them play, they look like they’re having an absolute blast, winning 104 games, being the Best Team in Baseball. They are chock-a-block with fun players and good dudes.
But I will say that the vibes of this Phillies team are incredibly special to the city of Philadelphia, and to Phillies nation. My friend Chris Towers was kind enough to say that if the Marlins had to lose, at least they could do it the “lovable himbos” of the Phillies, and it’s the most accurate description of this team I could imagine. Apart from that Venn diagram that is circulating, positing that all Phillies players can be charted along the axes: Big Boy Pinup / Hot Latino / Hot Dirtbag / Disney Prince.
Partly, I can’t imagine this Phillies team being a lot more lovable than it is. And partly, this team has taught me about the importance of vibes, both in and of themselves, and also to this particular team. A lot of good vibes both come from winning and contribute to more winning, in a feedback loop—and obviously, the opposite can happen. But sometimes things shift for different reasons. I didn’t think firing Joe Girardi would fix things last year, but it flipped a switch. Was it because it empowered the Phillies younger (“daycare”) players? Was it because Kyle Schwarber, reputed to be one of the best clubhouse guys of this era, settled in? Was it because it really allowed Chief Vibes Officer Garrett Stubbs to implement his five-point plan?
Conversely, I can’t help wondering how much losing Rhys Hoskins to a torn ACL in spring training did to this team at the start of the season. I was devastated and listless, and he’s not even my coworker and teammate. I also can’t help noticing that the Phillies started playing much better at the start of June when Hoskins rejoined the team. I know that sounds silly, and that correlation is not causation. Look, I like advanced stats as much as the next fan—maybe more. But this Phillies team feels like a team of magical thinking.
Because who would have thought that the city of Philadelphia giving Trea Turner a standing ovation for his tireless work ethic, in the midst of an inexplicable slump, would actually turn his season around? But it did. Maybe it feels like crystals and Dreamcatchers and The Secret, but it worked. I couldn’t possibly write about the 2023 Phillies, and not mention this outpouring of support. Some people hated it because it seemed “soft.” Some people hated it because it went against their image of Philadelphians as throwing batteries and booing Santa Claus. But I loved it; I’ve always been a support-your-guys-no-matter-what advocate. And what the Trea Turner ovation illustrates is the love the fanbase has for this particular team of guys—the love this team elicits from this city. And this kind of joyful play is what this city elicits from this team. For me, that makes it one of the most emblematic moments of this Phillies season.
No matter what happens when they play the Best Team in Baseball, Phillies fans are all so lucky that they got to love this team, this year, last year and next year. And Atlanta fans are pretty lucky, too. Objectively.
Hey, if you feel like it, I’d love if you’d share this post with your friends!
Many years ago, the playwright, restaurant owner and fight promoter Wilson Mizner was told that his fiercest fighter, the great Stanley Ketchel, had died. “Tell ‘em to start counting ten over him,” Mizner said. “He’ll get up.”
I thought about that when the news broke on Thursday that Dick Butkus had died.
“Someone start running with a football,” I thought. “He’ll get up.”
Dick Butkus was one of the greatest football players who ever lived, that’s a given. He was not A middle linebacker; he was THE middle linebacker. He forced more fumbles, recovered more fumbles, knocked more running backs backward than anyone before him and, perhaps, anyone since.
But, like few who have ever played sports, his aura was even bigger than his game. He was the baddest man on the field, any field, every field. He played, as NFL Films’ Steve Sabol wrote and John Facenda spake, “with a religious fervor, with an unrelenting obsession not only to excel but to dominate and demoralize.”
“He came after you,” Paul Hornung once said, “like he hated you from his old neighborhood.”
“Dick Butkus hated everybody,” Deacon Jones said. “I think he even hated himself.”
“I would sit back and watch sometimes,” Hall of Fame linebacker Willie Lanier said, “and say, ‘Damn, does he really play the game that way?’”
Once, John Unitas was near the Bears’ defensive huddle and he cheekily said, “Hey, what are you guys planning over there?”
“To break your neck,” Butkus said without hesitation.
When he died on Thursday, a part of football died. A part of Chicago died. “It feels,” lifelong Bears fan Jeff Garlin says, “like a piece of me died.”
I saw Butkus briefly last year during a Bears game at Soldier Field. Someone was interviewing him during the game, and the crowd was loud and alive, and the question was asked: “What advice would you give to these Bears?”
“GET BETTER!” he snarled, and the cheers cascaded through Chicago as if he’d just tackled the quarterback for a safety.
WHY WE LOVE BASEBALL Update
Just an incredible review in The Wall Street Journal. My cup runneth over.
I’m doing a Reddit AMA today at 1 p.m. ET. I’m not entirely sure how it works, but maybe you are and you’ll head over and ask some questions.
I’ll be doing a Charlotte event along with pal Tommy Tomlinson at 7 p.m. ET on Oct. 18 at Park Road Books. There are no tickets for this free event but I would suggest you come early because it might fill up fast.
I’ll be in Dallas on Oct. 26 for a Bookfest event at the Aaron Family JCC. Start time is 7 p.m. and tickets are $10. Maybe we’ll talk some Rangers!
It looks like (fingers crossed) I’ll be in Nashville on Nov. 1 to do an event with — get this — Country Music Hall of Famer Marty Stuart. I’ll fill you in on more details as they’re finalized.
I’ll be at the Bender JCC of Greater Washington in Rockville, Md., for the Bagels and Baseball event on Nov. 5. Been looking forward to this one. Save at least one poppy seed bagel for me.
I’ll be in Cherry Hill, N.J., the next day, Nov. 6. I don’t think the Katz JCC there has put up ticketing information yet, but I’ll let you know when they do. It will actually be my second time in the Philadelphia area as I’ll be in Mount Laurel in a couple of weeks to spend a little time at NFL Films for my next book!
I’ll be in Atlanta on Nov. 8 and I’ll be doing a mega event with Adam Lazaraus, whose new book, The Wingmen, about the friendship between John Glenn and Ted Williams, is superb. As I understand it, we’ll do separate events and then come together at the end for a combo event. I’m not exactly sure how it will work, but it will be great.
I’ll be in Toledo on Nov. 12; some of the details there are still being worked out.
I’ll be in Houston on Nov. 16, tickets are either on sale or going on sale.
JoeBlogs Week in Review
Sunday: Our last Pennant Racin’ update (well, sort of).
Tuesday: It’s playoff time!
Wednesday: Recapping day one.
Thursday: And just like that, the wild-card round is done.